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Great Lovers, Leaders, Statesmen

Simon Sebag Montefiore imagines dinner with Catherine the Great, Prince Potemkin and Stalin.

During the hot summer of 1934, while Josef Stalin was holidaying at his mansion in Sochi by the Black Sea, he ruminated on Russia’s great statesmen as he designed a historical textbook to educate a new Soviet generation. When it came to Catherine the Great, he held up a finger and declared: ‘What was the genius of Catherine the Great? Her greatness lay in the choice of Prince Potemkin and other such talented officials to run the State.’ Yet Stalin did not promote Catherine and Potemkin in his textbook. They were too aristocratic and enlightened for his vision of the Russian State: he preferred the ruthless power of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great.

Stalin understood that Catherine and Potemkin’s noble decadence and flam­boyant style were not only diametrically different from his Bolshevik austerity but their vision of the individual and state were utterly different too.

If Stalin visited more mur­der and misery on the Rus­sian people than any other monarch since Genghis Khan, Catherine and Potem­kin were probably the most humane and generous rulers Russia has ever enjoyed. I should go further: while Stalin is a fascinating subject for the historian and I have enjoyed every moment of my research on the Red Tsar, he was also a dark, strange and terrible man. On the other hand, one could not imagine more charming, funny and delight­ful companions than Catherine and Potemkin. Their relationship, which I lived through thousands of their letters, some sexual, some amorous, some political, is not only History’s greatest romance in the tradition of Antony and Cleopatra, but it is also the most successful political partnership of all.

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